Explosive Evidence for the World’s Oldest Map

SCIENCE

A new study of volcanic rocks suggests that an ancient mural may indeed depict an erupting volcano, adding new weight to a theory that this 9,000-year-old image is a contender for the world’s oldest known landscape painting or map. (NPR)

Use our resources to better understand how archaeologists interpret the past.

The Hasan Dagi volcano has two peaks towering over the rectangular homes in the valley below. The region around Hasan Dagi, in what is today Turkey, has been inhabited for more than 9,000 years. Photograph by Janet C. Harvey, Public Library of Science

The twin peaks of the Hasan Dagi volcano tower over the rectangular homes in the valley below. The region around Hasan Dagi, in what is today Turkey, has been inhabited for more than 9,000 years.
Photograph by Janet C. Harvey, Public Library of Science

This illustration, which accompanies the scientific paper analyzing the eruption of Hasan Dagi, shows a black-and-white rendering of a wall painting unearthed at the archaeological site of Catal Huyuk. The mural may or may not be the world's first map—of a two-peaked volcano just beyond the square buildings of an ancient community. Illustration courtesy PLoS One, "Identifying the Volcanic Eruption Depicted in a Neolithic Painting at Çatalhoyuk, Central Anatolia, Turkey" Axel K. Schmitt, Martin Danisik, Erkan Aydar, Erdal Sen, Inan Ulusoy, Oscar M. Lovera

This illustration, which accompanies the scientific paper analyzing an eruption of Hasan Dagi, shows a black-and-white rendering of a wall painting unearthed at the archaeological site of Catal Huyuk. The mural may or may not be the world’s first map—of a two-peaked volcano just beyond the square buildings of an ancient community.
Illustration courtesy PLoS One, “Identifying the Volcanic Eruption Depicted in a Neolithic Painting at Çatalhoyuk, Central Anatolia, Turkey”
Axel K. Schmitt, Martin Danisik, Erkan Aydar, Erdal Sen, Inan Ulusoy, Oscar M. Lovera

Discussion Ideas

  • The Science Museum of Minnesota has a terrific online introduction to the “Mysteries of Catalhoyuk.” Take a look at their cartoon page on “Volcano or Leopard,” which explains the debate around the mural discussed in the NPR article. How does the new study contribute to the debate? What new evidence does it present?
    • The new study, outlined in the NPR article, analyzes the eruption history of Hasan Dagi, a two-peaked volcano near the ancient settlement of Catal Huyuk, in what is now Turkey. The volcano, scientists discovered, probably erupted when people were living in Catal Huyuk.
    • The new study lends some credibility to—but does not prove—the theory that the mural depicts the eruption of a volcano. The volcano probably erupted while the artist was living in Catal Huyuk or stories of the eruption could have been handed down through generations. The artist could have been depicting the eruption . . or a leopard-skin rug, or something else entirely.
  • Read our encyclopedia’s short section on prehistoric and historic archaeology. Is the site at Catal Huyuk prehistoric or historic? How do archaeologists at Catal Huyuk study the ancient settlement?
    • Catal Huyuk is a prehistoric site, meaning the civilization that inhabited the site did not develop writing.
    • Archaeologists studying the settlement at Catal Huyuk analyze artifacts and features associated with the site. Artifacts are portable remains of a culture. Archaeologists at Catal Huyuk have unearthed artifacts such as pottery sherds, carved figurines, and even human skeletons. Features are non-portable remains. The debated mural is a feature at Catal Huyuk.
    • Archaeologists can also rely on the work of related disciplines, such as geology or climatology, to assist them in their study of prehistoric cultures. The new study in the NPR article was led by volcanologist Axel Schmitt.
  • What other features or artifacts might contribute to the debate around the mural at Catal Huyuk? What other disciplines might help?
    • Like all scientists, archaeologists are always looking for patterns. They are probably looking for similar depictions on pottery, other murals, or other artifacts and features at Catal Huyuk. They may also keep an eye out for similar illustrations at nearby sites in Turkey. Depending on how and where the depictions are found, they could lend credibility to either the volcano or leopard theory.
    • Archaeologists might look for other evidence of the eruption of Hasan Dagi. Geologists or glaciologists might study sediment or ice cores, looking for changes in soil or air qualities that indicate an eruption?

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